Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Four Kinds of Silence

One of my favourite professors in college used to remind us: “Things are not what it seems.” It is a call for us to learn to see beyond the obvious, to notice things besides the superficial, and to observe circumstances with a careful eye. The saying, “Still waters run deep,” rings a familiar bell. It is easier to see the bottom of a still clear lake compared to squinting our eyes to look underneath choppy waters. An ordinary thing, seen with extraordinary sense of observation yields surprising discoveries. In the movie, Independence Day, the brilliant scientist was struggling to find a solution to defeat the powerful alien force field. After much frustration over his lack of progress, he discovered a breakthrough simply by noticing a very ordinary comment by his Jewish father. Two things played a key role. Firstly, he took a break. Secondly, he paid attention during an ordinary conversation. Things are certainly not what it seems, especially when we pay attention. Another example of ordinary things is about the different kinds of silence. The great 13th century Dominican monk-theologian-philosopher, St Thomas Aquinas, once said:
There are various kinds of silence; of dullness, of security, of patience, of a quiet heart.” (Thomas Gilby, trans, St Thomas Aquinas Philosophical Texts, Kessinger Publishing, 2003, p321)
Dr Johnny Almond of Colonial Beach Baptist Church interprets this four kinds of silence as follows (his words are italicised):
Dullness: “The silence of apathy displeases God – an uncaring heart doesn’t question injustice.
Security: “The silence of arrogance displeases God – an ungrateful heart doesn’t give heaven credit.
Patience: “The silence of perseverance pleases God – an uncomplaining heart will not quit faith marathon.
Quiet Heart: “The silence of prayer pleases God – an undistracted heart will pause to hear whispers from eternity.

My Interpretation
Almond’s interpretation conveniently breaks the silences into the types that please God and the types that displease God. I will not be too quick to jump to such a conclusion, to say that the first two is no-good, while the latter two are good. Instead, I believe the silences of dullness, security, patience and quiet heart can be helpful starting points in our spirituality of prayer. The reason is sometimes, we do not have the power to overcome our dullness or our security weakness. If we are feeling apathetic or dull, does that mean we cannot come to God? Far from it, Whether we are dull or needing security, we can still come to God, as we acknowledge our weakness, confess our sins and let God take over. Before I offer my model, let me make a few points about the four silences. The first silence, ‘Dullness’ can be due to a state of unmet needs. People are not born dull. They could be waiting for moments of excitement or engagement. Just last weekend, while doing groceries in Chinatown, I walked past a parked minivan. Suddenly, a dog barked loudly from inside the car, giving me a shock. My children who saw me were amused and laughed at me for losing my ‘cool.’ On my return, I told them that I will ‘take revenge’ on the dogs. They gleefully observe me as I walk up to the dogs in the minivan and gave them a boo. All my kids laughed and one of them said to me: “Dad, you’re not that boring after all.” I guess none of us can be called ‘boring’ all the time. There will be moments of dullness in our lives, but all it takes is a moment of inspiration.

Secondly, the cry for security is often due to fear. Some keep quiet fearing that they may suffer consequences, like making noise when the principal of the school is talking. Silence is also used by people arrested. We have seen how the police arrest villains at the movies, saying: “You have the right to remain silent.” Such attitude of silence seems rooted in fear.

Thirdly, patience is an attribute of waiting, plus continued perseverance. Fourthly, a ‘quiet heart’ is an attempt to build around oneself an environment for better listening and attention giving.

A Model of Prayer
I will suggest a model for prayer using such silences. If we feel ourselves getting DULL, feeling apathetic, or lethargic, or simply not wanting to care about anything, talk about it. Express the same feelings to God over and over again, using different phrases, different languages each time, even writing on the piece of paper about our inner struggles. By doing this, we honour God by honestly expressing our emotional selves, and seeking his forgiveness for any apathy or weakness we are experiencing. We try to move toward God through patience and perseverance, by praying continually. There is no need to fear dullness. Use it as an entry point to enter into the forgiveness of God.

If we feel ourselves getting fearful over SECURITY, commit to God our weakness and fear. God is our strong and mighty tower. Ps 46 is a good start too. If we start our prayer from either DULL or SECURITY, persevere in praying via PATIENCE so that we can attain a QUIET HEART. At the QUIET HEART stage, we start to sense the presence of God in a whole new way. We enjoy God simply for who He is.

Let me caution, that as much as we think we can move from DULL-->SECURITY-->PATIENCE--> QUIET HEART, the reverse can also happen. We may start with a QUIET HEART, but if we are distracted, we can easily fall into DULLNESS or SECURITY. The point is, we must be free to come to God, regardless of what state we are in. The way to God is often strewn with wild flowers by the side that distract. Stay focused on God. The door to God does not depend on our first getting our emotions 'correct.' We cannot simply say: "Impatience be gone." "Anger, disappear." It all needs time. Fortunately, the throne of grace is open not only to adults or seniors. God welcomes little children. Let us come to God with innocence like those of little children. Take it to the LORD in prayer. Don’t be afraid to come to God, just as you are. Let God know how you are feeling. Work toward developing an environment that facilitates a quiet-heart. A heart that takes all pleasure and comfort from God and God alone. The key is, we can start anywhere, but a QUIET-HEART will always be our purpose. Communion with God is our goal. The following prayer has been especially helpful to me this week.

THE SERENITY PRAYER (Reinhold Niebuhr)


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